Each spring for the last 10 years, Dean Smith would tell longtime assistant Bill Guthridge to be ready to take over just in case the legendary North Carolina basketball coach couldn't relight the competitive fires for the coming season and decided to retire.
And each fall, Smith would find a way to rekindle the passion and return to the bench.
"He always got his batteries charged," Guthridge said yesterday. "It's all the little things that wore him out. I think he still loves coaching and teaching. But anyone who knows Dean knows he's not going to do things halfway."
That was the reason Smith cited for his sudden decision to resign after 36 seasons in Chapel Hill, where he went from being a relatively unknown assistant under Frank McGuire to becoming college basketball's all-time winningest coach with 879 career victories.
Smith's decision was made Tuesday after a meeting with North Carolina president Michael Hooker and athletic director Dick Baddour. He informed his current players and staff, as well as some recruits, Wednesday and made it public at a packed campus news conference that was carried live on ESPN yesterday.
"I have decided to resign as head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina," said Smith. "There was much speculation. I am healthy outside of no exercise. Somebody said was mad at Chancellor Hooker and that I didn't want Dick as AD. We have a happy family. I'm 66. I enjoy basketball. I enjoy coaching basketball. It's the out-of-season stuff I didn't handle well."
Perhaps also the politics. Despite his denials, there is speculation that the timing of Smith's announcement nine days before the start of preseason practice was done to insure that Guthridge would get a chance to succeed him rather than give the new administration a chance to conduct an outside search.
There have been rumors that Smith wanted former assistant John Lotz, an assistant athletic director at the school, to succeed John Swofford, who left this summer to become commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Guthridge, who has been on Smith's staff for 30 years, was given the title of interim head coach.
Though Hooker said that he has endorsed Smith's recommendation that Guthridge be given a multi-year contract, his future will likely hinge on the job he does and the interest by other high-profile coaches with connections to the school. A source familiar with the situation said that Guthridge, 60, could get a five-year contract.
"He's been instrumental to the overall success," Baddour said of Guthridge. "He has learned well from the master. He is ready and eager to do this job."
Said Guthridge, "It is a very difficult situation to follow the greatest coach of all time. I know I never can live up to what he's done and what he's accomplished, but I'm certainly going to try. I think we'll be successful. This isn't quite the way I envisioned this scenario. I had hoped Dean and I could ride off into the sunset in five years."
In a nearly one-hour news conference, Smith made jokes about his age when he couldn't quite hear a question and about his physique, saying that one of the reasons he was retiring was that he couldn't match the standard of "single-digit" body fat content of his players.
The only time he became emotional was in talking about his players.
"I'm the luckiest guy in the world to be here," Smith said. His voice began to crack. "Thanks to my players. Any man. "
The large crowd at the school's athletic center applauded. Yesterday's news conference was attended by current and former players, including Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown, whose team had been training at the school. Also attending was Georgetown coach John Thompson, a longtime friend of Smith who served as his assistant coach on the gold-medal winning Olympic basketball team in 1976.
Smith, who broke legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp's record of 876 victories against California in the second round of last season's NCAA tournament, won two national titles at North Carolina, in 1982 and again in 1993. His teams finished in the top three of the ACC 33 straight seasons and have won 20 or more games in 27 straight years. More impressively, 94 percent of Smith's players left Chapel Hill with their degrees.
"This is very difficult," said Hooker, a former president at UMBC. "I have admired Dean Smith since I was a freshman at North Carolina in 1965. I told him walking down the stairs that I don't think anyone has ever done for higher education what Dean Smith did for North Carolina. We will miss him. Coach Guthridge, welcome."
Whether the school's Board of Regents acts on Hooker's recommendation to give Guthridge a multi-year contract could hinge on what kind of interest others have in the job. Those head coaches most prominently mentioned are Roy Williams of Kansas, a former assistant whose son was a member of last year's JV at North Carolina, and South Carolina's Eddie Fogler, who played and coached under Smith. Smith has reportedly asked that current assistant and former star Phil Ford be considered for the job on a permanent basis. Seattle SuperSonics coach George Karl, a former Tar Heels guard, also has been mentioned.
"This was a very emotional day. It was a very emotional night last night," Williams said during a news conference in Lawrence, Kan. "The last several years I've worried about this day. And I think the reason I have worried is because college basketball is at a great loss today. Coaching is also at a great loss."
Smith said that he received several calls from former players and assistants, as well as from President Clinton. "I let that one through," Smith said, joking. In a statement released by the White House, Clinton told Smith, "There is nobody like you. But not just because you won, but because of the way you did it."
The reaction to Smith's announcement was met with a unanimous outpouring of admiration. Coach John Wooden, who won 10 championships in his last 12 years at UCLA, said of Smith, "I think Dean is one of the most innovative coaches I have known. I haven't known of anyone that was able to teach so many things as well as Dean has."
Said Michael Jordan, who as a freshman hit the game-winning shot to beat Georgetown for the 1982 NCAA championship, "He's a father figure to a lot of players and a lot of people. That's how he's always been, very genuine in his attitude toward his players."
The departure of Smith from a league he has dominated leaves a void among the other coaches.
Maryland coach Gary Williams has been remarkably successful against Smith in his nine seasons in College Park, starting with a sweep of the Tar Heels in his first year and the largest second-half comeback in school history to beat North Carolina at the "Dean Dome" last season.
"I'll miss him," Williams said yesterday. "I enjoyed walking out there and seeing him down at the other bench. With Dean, the games always had a certain edge."
Smith said yesterday that he was unsure about his plans, but he told Hooker that he wouldn't mind teaching a basketball class in the physical education department. He said he planned to remain in Chapel Hill, but that he'd likely not attend games since he gets too nervous even watching those involving his former assistants on television.
He was asked how he'd like to be remembered.
"I don't know, I haven't given it much thought -- none," he said. "He had a little effect, he did a good job and he lived happily ever after. He loved his players and got loyalty in return."
Smith's milestone victories
@4 Some milestones in Dean Smith's coaching career:
Dec. 2, 1961: UNC beats Virginia, 80-46, in Smith's head coaching debut.
March 11, 1967: UNC beats Duke, 82-73, for the first ACC title under Smith.
March 17, 1967: UNC beats Princeton, 78-70, for the first of 61 NCAA tournament victories under Smith.
March 18, 1967: UNC beats Boston College, 96-80, for the first of 10 NCAA regional titles under Smith.
March 27, 1971: UNC beats Georgia, 84-66, to win the NIT championship.
March 29, 1982: UNC beats Georgetown, 63-62, to capture the NCAA championship.
March 13, 1993: UNC beats Virginia, 74-56, in the ACC tournament semifinals for Smith's 768th win, surpassing Henry Iba for second on the all-time win list.
April 5, 1993: UNC beats Michigan, 77-71, to win the NCAA championship.
March 9, 1997: UNC beats North Carolina State, 64-54, for Smith's 13th ACC title and assures a 23rd consecutive NCAA appearance.
March 15, 1997: UNC beats Colorado, 73-56, in the NCAA tournament second round for Smith's 877th victory, passing Adolph Rupp and making him No. 1 on the all-time win list.
March 23, 1997: UNC beats Louisville, 97-74, to advance to Smith's 11th Final Four in his final coaching victory, No. 879.
At the top
% A comparison between:
Rupp ... Smith
Years, 41, 36
Wins, 876, 879
Winning Pct., .822, .776
Avg. wins per year, 21.4, 24.4
30-win seasons, 4, 3
20-win seasons, 23, 30
Conference Titles, 26, 13
NCAA appearances, 20, 27
NCAA tour., Wins, 30, 65
NCAA Final Fours, 6, 11
NCAA Titles, 4, 2
NIT Titles, 1, 1
Dec. 17, 1962: N. Carolina 68, Kentucky 66 at Lexington, Ky.
Dec. 9, 1963: Kentucky 100, N. Carolina 80 at Lexington, Ky.
Dec. 7, 1964: N. Carolina 82, Kentucky 67 at Charlotte, N.C.
Dec. 13, 1966: N. Carolina 64, Kentucky 55 at Lexington, Ky.
Dec. 12, 1967: N. Carolina 84, Kentucky 77 at Greensboro, N.C.
Dec. 7, 1968: N. Carolina 87, Kentucky 77 at Lexington, Ky.
Dec. 8, 1969: Kentucky 94, N. Carolina 87 at Charlotte, N.C.
Pub Date: 10/10/97